Portrait of George Borrow

Wandsworth Gypsies

In Romano Lavo-Lil George Borrow describes an 1864 visit to the Wandsworth Gypsies:

What may be called the grand Metropolitan Gypsyry is on the Surrey side of the Thames.  Near the borders of Wandsworth and Battersea, about a quarter of a mile from the river, is an open piece of ground which may measure about two acres ... a place which has either no proprietor, or which the proprietor, for some reason, makes no use of for the present

Romano Lavo-lil.

Although much later, there were proprietors who appear to have been allowing this (for charity or profit):

The Gipsy Encampment.—William Penfold, of Wardley street, Wandsworth, was summoned before Mr. Paget, at the instance of the Wandsworth Board of Works, for having his premises in such a state as to be a nuisance and injurious to health.—Mr. Corsellis, clerk of the Board, who supported the summons, said the Defendant had a piece of ground which was used as a gipsy encampment.  Some time since proceedings were taken against the Defendant and another man, and an order was obtained for the removal of the filth on the ground.  There were four vans, each occupied by a family, one of the vehicles having a space of 275 cubic feet for six persons.—Dr. Nicholas, the medical officer of health, was called, and stated that the premises were in the same condition that day as when he saw them on his last inspection.—Mr. Paget said the case came to this—a man and his wife living in a van.  He dismissed the summons.—Thomas Mills was summoned for a similar office.—Mr. Corsellis said in this case there were tents on the ground, as well as vans.—Dr. Nicholas said he found three tents, each occupied by a family, who slept on chips, from the making of skewers, and litter, and lived in a condition highly prejudicial to themselves, and indirectly to the neighbourhood.—Mr. Paget said it was desirable to remove nuisances of that sort, but the evidence was too vague to act upon.  He dismissed the summons.

The Standard, February 12, 1879.

Borrow also noted the close-confined living:

Some of the tents are large, as indeed it is highly necessary that they should be, being inhabited by large families—a man and his wife, a grandmother, a sister or two and half a dozen children

Romano Lavo Lil.

but also pointed out that some tents were only occupied by one Gypsy.  He also notes that it’s mainly the Lee, Boswell and Cooper tribes, with the Lees being in the majority.  In what looks like an exaggeration Borrow claims visitors are in danger of getting rabies from the dogs, and that itinerant Gypsies with such dogs are spreading an incurable plague.  There was much substance to this idle remark:

Loughton.  Death from Hydrophobia.—An inquest has been held at the Royal Oak, on the body of a gipsy lad named Lee, who died on Saturday morning, with every sympton of hydrophobia.—Zechariah Lee, a gipsy, residing in Loughton Forest, said the deceased was his grandson, and had been living in his tent, and the first time he noticed anything the matter with him was on Friday morning, when he refused to take his tea.  He then went out with some other boys and gathered some crab apples, and after boiling them ate them, which made him sick.  He went to bed at nine o’clock, and witness heard no more of him until he called for his uncle some time during the night.  He seemed very wild, and they took him to the doctor’s at Epping.  About three weeks before Whitsuntide he was bitten in the cheek by a puppy.—Dr. Fowler deposed to having made a post-mortem examination, and said that it was his opinion death was caused by hydrophobia.—A verdict to that effect was returned.

Essex Standard, July 23, 1875

As an aside note the Lee’s were also associated with Epping Forest (Loughton being next to Epping Forest).

Borrow points out that during the Spring and Summer the Gypsy tribes are elsewhere: attending fairs, horse-dealing etc. but with the onset of winter the return and camp at Wandsworth, with two weeks before Christmas being very busy.  Borrow was either told this or was a regular visitor who had noticed it: more likely the latter and Wandsworth was not far from his home in 22 Hereford Square, Brompton.  It might also date the visit related to the second half of December 1864.

Borrow first concentrates on Charlotte Cooper, aged around 75, around five feet high and “wonderfully strongly built”, who made money telling fortunes.  She was the wife of the famous Gypsy Cooper the pugilist who fought many of the famous men Borrow relates in Lavengro.  Borrow calls Cooper “Jack”, although he was also called John.  Apparently Cooper courted Charlotte “’neath the trees of Loughton Forest” (note Loughton again) and that they were formerly married: no record has been found of that but it was probably in the 1820’s if not before.

Borrow claims John Cooper was infatuated with a “painted Jezebel” that he “bore the blame of a crime which she had committed”.

Borrow says that whilst Charlotte remained true to her husband and expected him back every year from Australia, Cooper had settled there, and probably taught boys boxing!  Clearly Borrow knew Charlotte but it seems they spoke more of boxing than Romany.

Charles Leyland also knew Charlotte and wrote an article on her in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, August 1886, pages 539–542, which includes a portrait of her painted by Charles R. Leslie, around 1830.  Leslie was a Romany Rye and would have known Charlotte (and presumably Jack).

Charlotte Cooper, wife of Gipsy Jack Cooper the pugilist,
painted by Charles R. Leslie c1830, and engraved by C. A. Powell

Wandsworth Common had other domestic tales of the Coopers:

William Cooper, a gipsy, living in the encampment on Wandsworth-common, was charged with violently assaulting his wife. ...  Seven days imprisonment with hard labour.

Morning Post, April 17, 1867.

After the detail of Charlotte Borrow then goes all mysterious with a tall, 37 year old Gypsy woman who lives in a neat van (and therefore is better off than the tent dwellers.)  “Who she is no one exactly knows, nor what is her name, nor whether she is single woman, wife, or widow,” says Borrow, which doesn’t leave much to go on!  He notes she tells fortunes outside the Bald Faced Hind during Fairlop Fair (first Friday of July): the Epping Forest link again.  I.e. Borrow met her when he was at the Bald Faced Hind but neither there nor in Wandsworth did he succeed in getting her to open up to him: “The writer himself has tried to make her out but could not, though he has spoken to her in his deepest Romany”.

Borrow then settles down to a general account of the Wandsworth Gypsies describing their tents, furniture and belongings, and the then new-fangled vardo or waggon-house.  He says they have a breakfast of tea and bread and butter (note hydrophobia account above) and an evening meal of tea and stew.  Stinging nettle tea and hedgehogs are mentioned, although it’s hard to see where hedgehogs would be found in Wandsworth.  Begging, basket and stave making, and donkey rides are mentioned as employments: Fairlop fair being famous for the Gypsy donkey rides.

Other non-Romany groups shared the common with the Gypsies: “rogues and outcasts”, hawkers and the Irish travellers.  Borrow ends with a digression on the Irishman Old Mike, who spent winter at Wandsworth and the summer on Epping Flats.

Lastly: Borrow visited the Gypsies at Epping on at least one occasion and note how many of the Wandsworth people that Borrow mentions were also associated with Epping.  Was it that Borrow didn’t get far with the non-Epping groups?